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Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Three Strikes: Brewers miss home


ST. LOUIS -- The increasingly fascinating National League Championship Series gets rolling again Wednesday night. So here's some fodder to ponder as we await Chris Carpenter versus Yovani Gallardo:

Strike One: What The Heck Is Brewing On The Road Dept.

Here's a fun little Brewers fact for you: Never in the history of the franchise have the Milwaukee Brewers won a postseason series in which they lost even one game at home.

OK, OK. They've won only two postseason series in 42 years, so it's kind of a small sample size. But let the record show that in both of those series -- the 1982 ALCS and the 2011 NLDS -- they won all their home games and lost all their road games.

Well, as misleading as that fun fact may appear, there are two reasons it's now relevant to this series:

• Since the Brewers lost Game 2 at home to even this NLCS at a game apiece, they now have no choice but to win a game or two in St. Louis if they still have interest in playing in the World Series, which we're thinking they do.

• They weren't what you'd call the ultimate road warriors during the regular season, going just 39-42 away from home.

It isn't easy, you know, to win a division handily when you have so many issues on the road. In fact, it still amazes us that the Brewers won the Central by six games, even in a year when they won fewer road games than the Mets or Marlins and, more significantly, won only two road series all season against teams that finished above .500.

The Brewers more than made up for those issues at home, fortunately. They had the best home record (57-24) in baseball -- and that doesn't even begin to describe what life was like at Miller Park this season.

In the division-play era, only three National League teams have won more games at home in any season than the Brewers won this year -- the 1975 Big Red Machine (64-17), the 1977 Phillies (60-21) and the 1977 Pirates (58-23). So the point is, we've seen few more foreboding places to play (non-Yankee Stadium Division) in the past 40 years.

But because of that home-field dominance, the disparity between the Brewers' home record and road record -- in particular, their offense's 107-point difference in home/road OPS -- has become a source of great intrigue around the game.

"I'll admit, it made you wonder if something funny was going on," said an official of one NL Central team. "But we never could find anything. And believe me, we looked."

Yet only one NL manager voiced any public conspiracy theories about that disparity. And what are the odds it happened to be Tony La Russa, of all people?

La Russa tossed out some pointed comments in midseason about how the lighting in Miller Park was different when the home team was hitting than when the road team was up. But nothing was proved, and nothing much came of it.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin dismissed that talk in a hurry this week, saying: "Whenever a team hits well at home and has the kind of home record we have, there are always going to be conspiracy theories. Toronto was the same way this year, wasn't it? … We don't have anything to hide here. We've got a good offensive club. And our road record was much better from about July 15 on."

Now THAT is an important point -- and one that plays into how we view these next three games in St. Louis. After July 15, the Brewers went 23-11 on the road (after starting off just 16-31 in their first 47 games). And although it's true that the surge included a 14-2 record in Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York, it's also true that, in the middle of all that, the Brewers won a big series in St. Louis in August.

Even more important, though, their players felt as though they developed a different mentality on the road down the stretch.

"That mentality -- that's the key," said Jerry Hairston Jr., who joined this merry band at the trade deadline just in time to watch those road troubles begin to melt away. "I know that was an issue earlier in the season, but we got better as a team in the second half of the season. We felt like we could win anywhere. We made a conscious effort to be better on the road. And we have been."

Hairston said the leaders in this clubhouse -- guys like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder -- spoke openly about making that effort, telling their teammates: "We've got to be better on the road." They also talked management into relaxing the suits-and-ties-on-the-plane rules in an attempt to loosen the atmosphere. That also seemed to work, miraculously enough -- until last week, anyway,

"We wore suits in Arizona [in the NLDS]," Hairston reported. "And that didn't work out too well."

No word on how that will affect their dress code this week. But the Brewers understand that no matter what their attire, they need to find a way to win a game or two in St. Louis in the next three days.

"No question, we have to get it done here," Hairston said. "I don't care if we win 2-1 or 15-14. It doesn't matter. A win's a win. And we've got to figure out a way to win."

Strike Two -- Who Kidnapped Cinderella Dept.

It's time for this important announcement: The Cardinals would like to ban all usage of the term "Cinderellas" to describe them in pretty much every one of the 1.3 million tales floating around about their unlikely journey to this postseason.

Yeah, they were hopelessly behind a month and a half ago. Yeah, the chances of their still being here, playing in October, were once right up there -- or down there -- with the chances of Florida Atlantic winning the BCS. But that doesn't mean this is some ragtag team that somehow stumbled into the playoffs because everybody else was collapsing around it. No, sir. This team made the playoffs because it filled its holes and played great.

"I think people on the outside view this team as sort of a Cinderella story," Lance Berkman said. "But we look at it as, 'This is where we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season.' When I signed here -- of course, this was before [Adam] Wainwright blew his elbow out -- I signed here thinking this team could easily win the World Series. That's how good I thought we were. …

Berkman So this is NOT a Cinderella story. You look at our lineup, and it's almost an American League lineup in the National League.

-- Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman

"So this is NOT a Cinderella story. You look at our lineup, and it's almost an American League lineup in the National League. You've got a legitimate ace in [Chris] Carpenter and a great supporting staff around him. And they've solidified our bullpen. So we feel really good about where we're at."

But that Cinderella stuff isn't the only misconception the Cardinals players would like to clear up about this series. They're also not in favor of hearing people theorize that they have nothing to lose just because of where they came from.

After all, when your team is three wins from the World Series, how can you possibly believe that you're a team with "nothing" to lose anymore?

"I think that's wrong," infielder Nick Punto said. "I think there's a lot at stake. I've been playing 11 years now, and my biggest goal has always been to be world champions. And now that goal is within sight.

"Maybe we weren't supposed to beat the Phillies, and we weren't supposed to catch the Braves. But we did. And now that we've advanced this far, I think it's silly for people to be suggesting we're not supposed to advance again or win this series. We think we can win. And that's what we're here to do."

Strike Three -- Taking Offense Dept.

Finally, not many people have caught on, but the road to postseason glory has taken a different twist all of a sudden.

And it was Brewers GM Doug Melvin who pointed it out to us.

Prince Fielder
Offenses, not pitching, could be the key to success in this postseason.

"Everybody thinks pitching gets you in [to the playoffs]," Melvin said. "But this year, it looks like it's offense."

Check your ESPN.com team stats page, and it turns out he's right.

Of the top five teams in ERA this season, how many of them made the playoffs? Just one -- the Phillies (who ranked first).

But of the top five teams in OPS, how many made it? How about four (not to mention five of the top six and six of the top nine).

Naturally, we wondered whether there was more to that. So with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, we looked at the postseason fields from every season in the wild-card era. And here's what we found:

What happened this season was a first. Never happened.

In other words, this was the only season in all that time when just one team that ranked in the top five in ERA made the postseason. But when we looked closer, we discovered this was the continuation of a trend that began a couple of years ago.

In the first 14 seasons of the wild-card era, there had never been any season in which fewer than three of the top five ERA leaders made the postseason. But in each of the two seasons before this one, just two of the top five in ERA won a playoff spot.

Not coincidentally, the playoff field also began tilting toward offense a few years back. Only once in the first dozen seasons of the wild-card era did at least four of the top OPS leaders make the playoffs. But it has now happened three times since 2007.

So what does that tell us? That it might be time for teams to re-evaluate the formula that gets you here. Unless there's something we're missing, it appears the moral of this story goes like this:

In the age of offense, it's the teams with the best pitching that separate themselves from the pack. But nowadays, in the age of the pitcher, it appears to be the opposite: The clubs with the best lineups emerge in the end.

Now, it may very well be too soon to draw any firm conclusions on this. But it's verrrry interesting. And it's definitely something for GMs everywhere to think about.